Back from the dead

Explaining Kim Jong-un's disappearance

Albere Mozqueira

PHOTO: Photo by Steve Barker on Unsplash

Politics, International relations | East Asia

6 May 2020

It isn’t the first time, and it probably won’t be the last, writes Albere Mozqueira

After weeks of speculation, photographs released on the weekend suggested that Kim Jong-un is, indeed, alive. The whole episode was indicative of just how close to the chest the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea plays its cards when it comes to the health of Kim Jong-un. After all, there are many reasons to equate the wellbeing of Kim Jong-un’s and the survival of the state.

Kim Jong-un disappeared from public view on the 11th of April, and when he missed the 88th anniversary of the founding of the Korean People’s Army, a short-range rocket test, and his Grandfather’s birthday celebration, rumours began to spread. A second wave of rumour emerged, with Japanese media outlets such as the Asahi Shimbun reporting that China dispatched medical professionals and party members to North Korea to assist with the surgery and/or to assess the health of Kim Jong-un.

However, short of North Korea’s state television networks announcing his death, it is unlikely we will ever receive unequivocal confirmation of his demise from any other source. While he may have undergone heart surgery in an attempt to alleviate the damage done by the stressful and indulgent life of a dictator – with his obesity, smoking and drinking habits common knowledge among North Korea watchers – it is equally possible that he simply took measures to avoid COVID 19 which is currently sweeping the globe.

Although the DPRK reports that it has zero cases, its proximity to China, lack of modern healthcare and extreme poverty make responding effectively to the pandemic very difficult. This is not the first-time rumours have swept the globe about his presumed demise.

More on this: Why North Korea's full denuclearisation is a fantasy

Kim Jong-un has disappeared from the public eye before, for 41 days in 2014, while his father vanished for 51 days in 2008 (Kim Jong Il passed in 2011). Neither time saw North Korean media comment on the health of their leaders. He reappeared with a limp and a brand-new cane and most sources suggest either he underwent surgery to remove a cyst from his ankle, or suffered from gout, due to his excessive lifestyle.

Many are currently asking why North Korea didn’t simply respond to rumours about his health, but those who are asking fail to understand the importance of Kim Jong-un to the integrity of the state. If Kim Jong-un was dying on the operating table, his family will be under dire threat from those with the position and the ambition to move against the Kim family regime. His health, or facade of health, is a secret that puts the stability of the entire dynasty at risk, and when he eventually dies, his successors or usurpers will be doing everything in their power to remove their adversaries and cut deals that will allow them to survive in the murky days ahead.

His death would also increase the perception of external threat to the North Korean leadership, who are deeply suspicious of South Korea, Japan, China and the United States, and cannot be sure that they will not fall victim to enemy action while in a period of extreme turmoil. While most would scoff at the thought of a surprise attack, most plans involving a war with North Korea are based around killing him before he could launch his nuclear arsenal, and if he has died without a clear chain of succession, the control of his nuclear arms could well be up in the air. Openly discussing his health either inside or outside the country is counter-productive, as it only cracks the invincible facade that the Kim family Regime goes to extreme lengths to project.

With peace talks with the United States stalled, not that North Korea was negotiating in good faith with US President Donald Trump in the first place, and a global pandemic sweeping the globe, North Korea is extremely aware of its position in North-East Asia. Its direct neighbours are directly opposed to the survival of the rogue state. It has a tiny economy compared to the giants surrounding it, and the only guarantee of its survival is its nuclear arsenal, the leadership of Kim Jong-un and its large military.

The potential loss of its leader would be a significant psychological blow, and North Korea is far too cunning to announce the death of its leader before it has a chain of succession in place, regardless of how shaky that may appear to be.

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